Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly is based on the book Cogans Trade by George V. Higgins and set in New Orleans during the 2008 presidential elections.
It’s the story of Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) who are two low-lifes desperately looking to make a score. They take on a job which leads to a “total economic collapse” within the local underground crime ring. So in steps professional enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to send out a message and get everyone spending again.
Corporate America is the main theme within this film. A theme that has been prominent in gangster films for years. But this one boldly wears the business stars and stripes. A bit heavy handed at times, recession is echoed throughout, in dialogue, character development and by the use of background televisions and car stereos. The hierarchy and general operations behind running a successful mob ring is often expressed in a board room manner. This is a great analogy to the American mid-level businesses struggling to make money in this financial climate.
The storyline is rather straight forward which allows Andrew Dominik to showcase some excellent experimental filming techniques. Reminiscent of a Tarantino film there is quite a bit of dialogue. Often characters do wander off the point, but this helps to establish some history and depth behind their personalities.
Brad Pitt shows us just how good he can be as a ruthless hitman. Ray Liotta plays a gangster further down the mob chain than he normally does. It’s hard to watch him get smacked around when you know Henry Hill just wouldn’t take it. Ben Mendelsohn is great as Russell, the dog stealing idiot with entrepreneurial ambitions. He puts in a really convincing performance and provides the film with some much needed dark humour.
But what makes this film so brilliant to watch is the camerawork. The shallow focus, gritty setting and wonderful filming techniques help to establish this film as a truly artistic gangster movie. In one sequence the camera is left on top of the car door as it swings shut. It brings into focus a scared and isolated Frankie. It’s simple in technique but so integral in capturing the audience and directing them where to look within the composition. The drive-by assassination of one character in slow motion (using a high fps camera) is so beautifully shot that you can’t help but marvel at the detail presentedon screen.
The lighting and camerawork blend amazingly well in this film. One scene Frankie and Russell take heroin and keep dropping in and out of consciousness. To achieve the realism for this scene the camera drops in and out of focus with them. Intensely sharp light seeping in as their eyes open is a bizarre yet incredible touch to an otherwise grim scene to shoot. The sound is also superbly utilised in this film, panning from background noises to high pitch frequencies as scenes heighten with intensity.
To sum up
It’s evident that Andrew Dominik uses every technique to great effect as he crafts out his work, and this is really enjoyable to watch. To go on visuals alone this film would score more. But unfortunately it’s just not the complete package. The story is nothing ground-breaking and the underlying message of how business hungry America is could be a bit more subtle. Overall though this a great film, extremely well executed with originality and style. A great example of how refreshing it is to have a director use inventive and experimental ways to tell a story with a mainstream cast.